There is no denying it: July is the worst sports month of the year. Nothing major except for the occasional contract talk is happening in the football world, hockey and basketball are over (although I find the NBA about as interesting as driving four hours in the back of a wood-paneled station wagon to see the world’s largest ball of twine), and baseball offers about a minute and a half of actual athleticism in a three-hour game. Even though there is a major story with the Freeh Report officially being made public today, I’m going to stay away from it for the moment, not only because I have already written about Penn State and Paterno recently, but also because I would rather talk about actual football instead of a sex abuse scandal.
With that being said, as I did with regular season games, I am about to present what are in my opinion the ten greatest playoff games in NFL history. Let me start off by saying that I do not subscribe to either the notion that whatever happened most recently is the best, or that nothing will ever match the “good old days”.
Something that always bothers me about hard-core baseball fans is that even though they have never seen a game, no team will ever be better than the 1927 Yankees and no player will ever be better than Babe Ruth. You have to admit evolution and progress at some point. I have a hard time believing that great players with modern training methods haven’t progressed past someone who went to games hung-over and ate pickled eels in the dugout. At least in football, we admit that players and teams are always getting better and playing more exciting football.
At the same time, people tend to remember the most recent thing that happened the best due to our relatively short attention spans. History has largely taken a backseat in our schools, and most of the networks have followed suit. Beano Cook has mentioned (in the ESPNU College Football Podcast, July 10, 2012) that ESPN has a very hard time playing any clip that happened prior to 1979 (ESPN’s founding), probably because they don’t want to recognize that sports existed before they did [speculation mine], and I find that sad.
So on that note, here are the ten best playoff games in NFL history:
Number Ten: 1995 NFC Wild Card Playoffs, Detroit Lions 37 @ Philadelphia Eagles 58
I know what you’re thinking: Why the hell is this seemingly forgettable Wild Card game in a “Top Ten” list for greatest ever games?
The answer is because the blowout was so epic and so unexpected. There have been larger margins of victory before; that is obvious. I have never seen a game where a team that is usually a low-scoring (Philly) gain such a big lead (51-7 in the middle of the third quarter) so quickly against a team that was usually very high-scoring (Detroit).
The Lions had this nasty habit in the Wayne Fontes Era of losing often and repeatedly early, and spending the rest of the season trying to catch up. Detroit started the season 0-3 and 3-6, and won their last seven to make it into the playoffs as a wild card. They made one of the worst free agent signings in history with the addition of quarterback Scott Mitchell from Miami, where he unspectacularly filled in for Marino (3-4 record as a starter) while he was out with a torn Achilles tendon in 1993. Mitchell did play well in the second half of the 1995 season though, throwing for over 4000 yards and 32 touchdowns for the season. He had help from Barry Sanders’ 1500 yards rushing and having two 100-catch receivers in Herman Moore (126 catches/1686 yards) and Brett Perriman (108 catches for 1488 yards). You could sub in the 49ers or the Cowboys roster of that era and those statistics would look really good, but you really wouldn’t expect it from the Lions. I assure you, that season really happened.
The Eagles on the other hand, gave up more points than they scored (338/318), had journeyman Rodney Peete at quarterback after benching Randall Cunningham, and were generally unexciting. Philadelphia did manage to beat Dallas in the infamous “4th and 1” game on the second to last game of the season, but lost the season finale to Chicago in a game where their offense looked like it was about to sign a DNR.
The game started out normal enough, with the score tied at seven at the end of the first quarter. Detroit did turn the ball over once, but still appeared to be in good shape. Once the second quarter came around, Detroit just couldn’t stop themselves from making an avalanche of mistakes. They turned the ball over a total of seven times for the game, bumbled two kickoff returns which put the Lions offense inside their own ten twice in the second quarter, had a series of bad punts, and gave up a Hail Mary on a 3rd and 25 on the last play of the first half when the Willie Clay went for the interception instead of the knockdown. The Eagles scored 31 points in the second quarter, and went into the locker room up 38-7. You could put some of the blame on Brett Perriman getting injured early in the game, but this was a total team breakdown for the ages. Throughout the game, you could ask yourself “What is the worst possible thing that could happen to the Lions right now?”, and that ‘worst thing’ happened, repeatedly.
This string of futility carried on into the third quarter when the Eagles put up 13 points in the first six minutes to make their lead 51-7. The Lions put up thirty points in the second half, but they were completely useless points. Don Majkowski came in for Scott Mitchell at this point and threw for three touchdowns, but it was all for naught, and the damage was done. Philadelphia would lose the next week to eventual Super Bowl champion Dallas, but they had their day in the sun with this win (figuratively, of course we all know there has never been a pleasant day at the Vet).
You hear all the time about a 24-7 game (or something like that) being a “blowout”. The difference between that kind of a blowout and this game is like the difference between dying from a gunshot and getting nuked. The latter leaves no doubt.
Number Nine: 1980 AFC Divisional Playoffs, Oakland Raiders 14 @ Cleveland Browns 12
History would remember this game for the final play, aptly named “The Mistake By The Lake”, but it was so much more than that. The Raiders were a team that was playing above their heads that year. They traded Ken Stabler to Houston for Dan Pastorini, who then broke his leg. Former-first-overall-pick-left-for-dead Jim Plunkett came in and let his team to a wild-card birth. They had to go to AFC Central Division-winner Cleveland and play on a miserable frozen field that was in rough shape in normal conditions, let alone under a sheet of ice, and in two degree tempuratures. Cleveland was an exciting team in 1980, featuring an explosive passing game led by NFL MVP Brian Sipe.
This was one of those games that was matched up and played so evenly that the difference was going to be one or two plays. The field conditions basically neutralized both teams’ passing games, but that didn’t stop them from trying. Neither team really had a power running game, so they both had to try to pass on a field that wouldn’t be approved for a high school game. Cleveland got on the board first by returning an interception 42 yards for a touchdown, but they missed the extra point (this will come into play later). The Raiders would score all their points on a pair of one-yard touchdown runs, and Cleveland kicked a pair of 30-yard field goals.
Down 14-12, Cleveland mounted a drive. The play of the game (even bigger than Mike Davis’ interception, in my opinion) came when Sipe slipped during his dropback, regained his footing, and launched a wobbly pass to Ozzie Newsome on a corner route to the left side. Sipe got clocked as soon as the pass left his hand, and Newsome had to turn completely around to catch the ball. The Raider DB had fallen down in going for the ball, but managed to get a hand on Newsome’s ankle and save a touchdown. That was all that was left between Ozzie Newsome and the end zone. From the 13-yard line, Sipe would throw an interception in the end zone to secure a Raider victory.
Cleveland Head Coach Sam Rutigliano and Sipe would receive a lot of the misplaced burden for the loss due to going for a touchdown when a field goal was possible. What fans and the media forgot was that the Cleveland kicking game was successful on only two of their six attempts of the game, including a blocked extra point and a bad snap and hold on another field goal attempt. Also, kicker Don Cockroft had missed six of his extra point attempts that year under much more normal weather conditions. I would have gone for the touchdown as well.
Number Eight: 1993 NFC Wild Card Playoffs, Green Bay Packers 28 @ Detroit Lions 24
This was one of those rare times when division rivals meet for a third time for the year, but also meet in back-to-back weeks. In a historical context, the NFC Central Division in the early 1990’s (‘91-‘95) is a lot like the Houston Oilers and Cincinnati Bengals of the 1970’s: great football being played, but overshadowed by a dynasty. Cincinnati and Houston had the misfortune of being in the same division as Pittsburgh in the 70’s, and no NFC Central team could beat Dallas or San Francisco (or in the case of Detroit, couldn’t beat Washington in 1991, losing 45-0 and 41-10).
The Lions beat the Packers 30-20 in Detroit on the last week of the season to win the division with a 10-6 record. The Packers made it in with a 9-7 mark, the same record as they had the year before when they missed the playoffs, in a very top-heavy NFC. For their efforts, Detroit won the right to face Green Bay again at home the next week in the Wild Cards. In their previous meeting, Detroit forced five Green Bay turnovers (including four Favre interceptions), and held them scoreless in the fourth quarter while scoring two touchdowns of their own to turn a 20-16 deficit into a 30-20 win.
Both teams had skill players that had great games on this day. Barry Sanders rushed for 169 yards, and Brett Perriman caught ten passes for 150 yards for the Lions. Brett Favre threw three TD’s (all to Sterling Sharpe) and only one interception, and Sharpe caught five passes for 105 yards. Both teams had interception returns for touchdowns, and in the same quarter (3rd) nonetheless. There were six lead changes in the game, and neither team had any real control over the momentum throughout the game. The biggest lead at any point in the game was a 17-7 Lions lead in the third quarter, but that was quickly erased by a 28-yard Favre-to-Sharpe touchdown pass and a 101-yard interception return for a touchdown by George Teague to give the Packers a 21-17 lead going into the fourth quarter.
The Lions would come back with a 5-yard touchdown run by Derrick Moore (who?) on his only carry of the day. Despite his great day with 167 yards rushing, Barry Sanders didn’t score a touchdown. After trading punts, the Packers got the ball back with two and a half minutes left. Favre connected on three passes for first downs, then hit on the play of the game. Favre took the snap, scrambled to the left and towards the line of scrimmage, and as the Detroit defense moved up to stop him from running, he heaved a pass across the grain and into the wide-open and waiting hands of Sterling Sharpe for his third touchdown reception of the game.
This game epitomizes Favre’s career. He overcame a maddening interception return for a touchdown in the shadow of his own goalpost, overthrows (in one case, Mark Clayton was wide open in the end zone in the 4th quarter and Favre overthrew him), one-hops, and still managed to win the game. The funny thing about that is that I don’t think Favre really got any better in the playoffs than he was in 1993, but I think that the teams around him got significantly better. For better or worse, he still played in 2009 just like he did in 1993.
Why did I pick this game? Sure, there were better teams in the league at this time, but this was the period where it was a foregone conclusion that Dallas and San Francisco were going to be in the NFC Championship, and this would end up to be the only really good game in the NFC Playoffs that year. Great teams play flawless games and don’t make many mistakes, but flawed teams are much more interesting to me. Both of these teams were good teams with flaws, and on that day they played a great game.
Number Seven: (tie)
1971 AFC Divisional Playoffs, Miami Dolphins 27 @ Kansas City Chiefs 24 (2OT)
1974 AFC Divisional Playoffs, Miami Dolphins 26 @ Oakland Raiders 28
There is a very good reason why I squeezed two games into one spot: both of them are classics, but there is very little film available to the average fan other than made-for-TV highlight clips and short game summaries. It’s hard to judge something in its entirety that you can’t see in its entirety up against other things that you can. That alone caused me to put them back a few spots. Also, our standards of ‘great’ and ‘high-scoring’ change over time. Just like how when we’re sixteen, we’ll settle for any car with four wheels (negotiable), ten years later we want something that doesn’t need to be filled with oil every time we put gas in it. Back in 1971, scoring 27 points in a game was a lot; today it’s just another game. In fact, the 27 points scored by the Dolphins would be the most by any team that year in the playoffs (seven games).
Both of these games featured the great teams of their day. The Chiefs won the Super Bowl in 1969, and this was their last best shot at going back to another one, and the Dolphins were just starting their domination of the AFC in 1971. This would be their first of three straight trips to the Super Bowl, and the Raiders would end that streak in the 1974 playoffs. The Raiders went to Super Bowl II, and would continue to be one of the best teams in the AFC throughout the 70’s and early 80’s. Both games had double-digit Hall of Famers participating (players, coaches, and owners). These two games did not have just any run of the mill teams playing above their heads; these were arguably not only the best teams of those years, but the best of their era.
Let’s start with the 1971 Kansas City/Miami game. If you were to be keeping the stats throughout this game, it would look like Kansas City was winning fairly handily. The Chiefs did lead throughout the first half, but they continually made mistakes in the kicking game including a missed field goal near the end of the first half that was supposed to be a fake that was messed up by miscommunication. Kansas City running back Ed Podolak was having the game of his life, with almost 200 yards from scrimmage and a 51-yard kick return average, but the Dolphins kept responding. In the end, Kansas City doomed themselves with missed and blocked field goals (3), along with four turnovers. You just can’t leave that many points on the field against a really good opponent and expect to win. Miami would eventually kick the game winning field goal seven minutes into the second overtime following a 29-yard counter run by Larry Csonka. The 27 points scored by the Dolphins would actually be the most points scored by any team in a single game in the 1971 playoffs (seven games).
And now for the 1974 Raiders/Dolphins game. This game did have everything: offense, defense, big kick returns, controversial calls, and a great game atmosphere. You can’t ask for much more out of a playoff game than to see seven lead changes and some of the most exciting scoring plays possible all in one game. Again, like most great games, no team had the momentum for very long. Whenever one team would strike, the other usually countered. I can see why the Dolphins were upset afterwards, not only because their Super Bowl streak (three straight appearances, two wins) was over, but because all four of Oakland’s touchdowns were either very controversial or very fluke-y. On two of them (the first and the game-winner), Ken Stabler threw into brilliant textbook coverage and Raider receivers somehow came up with the ball. On the second, Fred Biletnikoff caught the ball way out of bounds near the front corner flag of the end zone, but the officials ruled it a force-out, and therefore a touchdown. The third touchdown pass was a deep pass down the left sideline to Cliff Branch where he had to dive to catch the ball, and in doing so the two Dolphin defenders fell down. Branch got back up without being touched and ran the last forty yards to the end zone.
I usually don’t buy it whenever fans or commentators complain that a team scored too early because I don’t think people who have never been in that position understand that you can’t just score at will by flicking a switch. This is one case where I can say that the Dolphins scored too early. Benny Malone took a sweep and broke about three tackles and scored when Don Shula was trying to just run the clock down before kicking a field goal. Instead, the Raiders got the ball back with under two minutes left, and calmly drove deep into Dolphin territory. From the eight-yard line, Stabler dropped back, scrambled towards the line of scrimmage to his left, and lofted a pass to Clarence Davis just as Vern DenHerder got to Stabler from behind. Davis was the least likely of the five players in the area (him and four Dolphins) to catch the ball, but he came down with it, and it will forever be known as the “Sea of Hands”.
Number Six: 1991 AFC Divisional Playoffs: Houston Oilers 24 @ Denver Broncos 26
This game belongs in the underrated category. The Oilers were a perennial playoff participant, but always fell apart in January, mostly due to having to go on the road against division-winners. This was not a banner year statistically for John Elway, with thirteen touchdowns and twelve interceptions, but they did recover from a 4-12 season in 1990 with a 12-4 season in 1991.
From minute one of this game, you could tell that these two teams just did not like each other. There was a constant chippiness throughout the game, and emotions were always at a high.
Warren Moon came out hot, throwing for three touchdowns in the first half and building a 21-6 lead in the second quarter. The Broncos would close the gap to five (21-16) by the middle of the third quarter, but the Oilers would kick a field goal to increase the lead to eight (24-16) in the fourth quarter. Elway led the broncos down the field on the next possession, and scored on Greg Lewis’ second touchdown of the day.
After the Bronco kickoff, the weakness of the Run and Shoot offense reared its ugly head. The Oilers just had to run four minutes off the clock, and eating up clock time at the end of the game is not a strong point of that offense. After a combination of miserable clock management and a baffling deep incompletion, Greg Montgomery made what could have been the play of the day: a perfect hanging punt that was downed by the Oiler coverage team at the two-yard line.
Down 24-23, the Broncos were 98 yards away, and lacking in timeouts. A twenty-yard pass on the first play of the drive combined with the two-minute warning gave the Broncos breathing room and a chance. Three plays later, the Broncos converted a 4th and 6 with a seven-yard run by Elway, despite the Oilers defense doing everything right. Three plays after that, the Broncos converted a 4th and 10 on a very similar play, only Elway cut the scramble short, tossed a wobbly pass to Vance Johnson, who was left wide open when the defender came up to stop Elway from running. Johnson streaked down the sideline for 44 yards before going out of bounds. With the help of Gary Kubiak’s hold on a bad snap, the Broncos kick a 28-yard field goal two plays later to give them a 26-24 win against a pesky Oilers team that did everything but win.
*I included this game but not “The Drive” for a few reasons. First, it had exponentially more excitement throughout the whole game than “The Drive”. Second, both teams played this game to win; both teams played not to lose for the majority of the game in “The Drive”. Third, the final drive in this game was a much more difficult task than the previous one. The equally bad field position (Broncos had to drive from their own two in each game) was the result of a brilliant special teams play in this game, as opposed to their own bumbling screw-up in “The Drive”. The Broncos had less time to work with (two minutes vs. six), and were going against a much better defense (1991 Oilers allowed 15 points per game, 1986 Browns allowed 19).
There’s the first half of the list. The Top Five will be posted by Sunday. Thanks for reading.